If Radio 4 starting doing a videogame version of Desert Island Disks, TOCA Race Driver 2 would be a worthy contender for that hallowed list; and now a PSP version is available, you don't even have to pack your PS2 and exploding AC adaptor in your rucksack. Bonus.
When we originally looked at the game, it was evident that despite all of TRD 2's various foibles and quirks, the whole package is a compelling one that's greater than the sum of its parts. In what amounts to a pot pourri of racing disciplines in one package, the game lets you race a huge variety of vehicles over many stages, from Supertrucks to vintage classics, rally cars, turbo charged GTs and more.
TRD 2 is effectively 15 games in one; with each discipline discernibly different to the next, requiring no small amount of skill to become familiar with each and every challenge thrown your way. To some degree, it deserves its self-penned tag line of being the 'Ultimate Racing Simulator': no other game before or since has packed in so many styles so successfully, and for that, we love it. Lots.
Unlike some attempts at simulation, Codies thankfully remembered to make it fun and accessible, and as such there's enough of a concession to the tinkerers while also making it genuinely open to the “pick up and play” softcore. The best thing is, TRD2 only gets more enjoyable the deeper you get into it. You can't really ask for more.
Essentially the idea is to show the world what a great driver you are. Impress the sponsors, place well in races, earn enough cash to progress and inch your way through a linear progression system which slowly reveals more sides to the game and gently eases you into more skilful and demanding races. Along the way the game breaks up the racing with admirable cut-scene interludes, starring your mentor and mechanic Scotty, a dour, no-nonsense grease monkey who can't help but express his displeasure at all the attention you get from the various agents, media types and collected hangers-on that pop up to grab a piece of your action. As an aside, having watched them for a second time, they're genuinely some of the best pieces of scripted narrative to grace a videogame (with excellent lip synching, mannerisms, well-judged voiceovers, the works) and are certainly a world away from most of the utter tripe that makes it into most games. Nice.
The racing itself is pretty undemanding in the early stages, in as much as you'll probably win within a handful of attempts. Experts might feel it's pitched too low. But don't let that fool you; before long you'll really have to start memorising the track layouts (there are 51 in total) as they are re-used for different motorsports, and provide hugely differing challenges. One seemingly innocuous track that presented no problems in a Supertruck will become an utter death trap in a higher speed vehicle, so it pays to know what corners are coming up.
There are certain design irritations that we've never quite understood, though, such as why you can't influence your starting position on the grid. Another that would have made the game more enjoyable would have been more choice over your career progression. Often you're shoehorned into racing a particular discipline whether you like it or not, and struggling through one particular set of races over and over isn't the best fun when you’re stuck. Choice would have been king, and given more incentive to carry on and do something else. As it stands, if you find yourself down a racing cul-de-sac, it’s your problem. Only winning through will change anything, and those are the sorts of design decisions that make gamers give up and play something else.
On the whole, though, it's top fun and we loved coming back to it for a second run through. We especially liked the way the game doesn't demand you win every single race in order to progress, and that you can actually restart races without being beaten over the head for it. All racing games should do this.
Wrestling another good port
We weren't really expecting Sumo Digital (purveyors of fine OutRun 2 and Virtua Tennis ports of late) to be able to cram a technically demanding game like this into the PSP, but it's done a damned fine job. First, the visual quality is excellent. Obviously, it's not quite up to that seen on the Xbox - you're never going to see that standard of texturing on the PSP - but on the confines of the small screen the game still looks striking, with no discernable pop-up and a decent frame rate that ensures you won't be left high and dry even when there are 19 cars piling into one another near the start. Reportedly the frame rate chugs at times of extreme action, but it really never affected us once in this five hour re-tread. One thing to note, though, is the track-side detail isn't perfect, and the detail on the cars diminishes quite quickly, but you'll barely notice. As ports go at this stage of the PSP, this is top notch.
The controls, too, are well suited to the PSP. On certain games we've immediately switched to dpad control, but not on TRD 2. It yields comfortably to tiny movements, and guiding your vehicle around bends at high speed is a joy to behold. Rarely did we find ourselves spinning out of control due to the control set-up, and that's all you can ask for. There are means to adjust things yourself if you're still not happy (including the ability to flip the screen and use the analogue nub in the top right, but that's downright perverted to be frank), but the default felt just fine.
There are some new additions worthy of note, too. Firstly, there’s the ability to create your own custom soundtracks via an additional piece of software downloadable from the official website, and secondly, there's 12-player wireless multiplayer to enjoy. Of course, online play would have been preferable, but seeing as no-one else is doing it at the moment either, we can't grumble. Whether you'll ever find yourself in the position of locating 11 other TRD 2-owning mates, though, is entirely another matter. Suffice to say we couldn’t track down one other TRD 2 owner, never mind 11, so it's another PSP multiplayer offering for us to file under 'good in theory'.
Lightening the load
Amazingly, we've got this far without once moaning about load times, and for good reason: you don't have to. Each race takes about 20-30 seconds to load, but that's it, and restarts are instantaneous. Beyond that, you're never left waiting around like certain other games we could mention, and given the linear progression system, you'll probably only have to worry about any loading issues every 15 minutes or so, or however long it takes for you to finish where you need to in each race. As portable fun goes, TOCA Race Driver 2 is a well-judged offering.
Despite the fact that there are a ludicrous number of racing games currently roaring around the PSP's, er, track, TOCA Race Driver 2 is one of the few that has made the transition to the Sony handheld intact and without compromise. With bite-sized races already part of the game's initial design, it makes the transition to the handheld arena surprisingly well, and although it's questionable whether existing owners should go out and buy it (unless, of course, you're a huge fan), those who didn't pick it up last year would be well advised to keep it in mind when you're scouring the shelves for PSP offerings to while away those hideous commutes.